Hilton Head 2014 Wrapup – 30 years of MEMS!

Guest post by Eric Levy-Myers

This was the 30th anniversary of the Hilton Head conference and the mood was one of amazement of how far the industry has come since the first meeting 30 years ago. The conference chairman noted that solid state sensors have taken over the world if only evidenced by the fact there are more smart phones than tooth brushes in the world. This set the stage for an underlying question of the conference: what happens to MEMS in the next 30 years? The Rump Session on Wednesday evening addressed the topic with special speakers.

The first day of the conference focused on Bio MEMS. In the first plenary session, Dr. Oliver Paul of the University of Freiburg spoke of directly linking to the brain to both sense and stimulate neurons. He noted with some humor that the brain has 10 to the 11th neurons. So given the number of neurons we can sense today, and a Moore’s law for probe sensors that doubles every 7 years, the curve says that we will be able to sense all the brains neurons by 2240.

The meat of his talk focused on four areas of invasive brain systems:

  1. Epicardial Grids that lay on the surface of the brain to control external machines such as robots for paraplegics to feed themselves.
  2. Array implants to sample many points in the brain.
  3. Deep Brain Probes to regulate diseases such as Parkinson’s.
  4. New Optical Stimulation technology that stimulate neurons based on wavelengths tuned to specific neuron types.

There are many challenges to getting these technologies into broad use, not least of which is the brain’s immune system attacks the probes rendering them useless in weeks or months. The research papers presented in the later sessions detailed how researchers are trying to overcome these and other challenges with Biomedical and Cellular Devices, and Bioassays.

Day two at the conference focused on the physical aspects of MEMS devices and fabrication. The plenary speaker Dr. Robert Carpick of the University of Pennsylvania introduced us to a term that most people had not heard of, “Tribology”.  As he explained; “We did not like the term ‘science and engineering of interacting surfaces in relative motion’ so we grabbed Greek words to make the word Tribology.” His thesis was that at the macro level, scientists and engineers understand how surfaces in contact interact.  They have methods to reduce the effects of this contact such as friction and material exchange. But at the MEMS level much less is known.  This is one reason MEMS devices avoid contact points and why MEMS manufacturers can be so frustrated by stiction or stickiness. Dr. Carpick explained several areas that hold promise to allow MEMS parts to touch and rub indefinitely without ill effect. One method was to have a sealed system fill with alcohol. The research papers in the technical session extended the topics to include Materials and Surfaces, Fabrication & Materials and Magnetic Transducers.

The Day three plenary speaker Dr. Kurt Petersen brought us his vast experience in successful entrepreneurship with MEMS companies and shared his lessons of what makes for successful startups. He set a very optimistic tone for the future of MEMS, one that is bright but not a given.   So he offered many juicy tidbits for anyone who wants to successfully start, run and exit a business. There were too many to repeat here, but these stood out:

  • Have a great team that is persistent and dedicated to the company’s vision.
  • Get your product into production fast. This fit well with the advice from the Sunday Workshop session where “fail fast so you can learn and adapt fast” was a theme.
  • Know your market inside and out because the investors will.
  • Inventing is great, but designing for manufacturing and efficient production is probably more important. You cannot make money if you cannot make and test it economically.

The afternoon research papers covered the latest research in High Q Resonators and Resonant Systems, promising, as did all the papers, much more MEMS innovation to come in the future.

The Rump Session highlighted the Sigma Group, a collection of SciFi writers that are distinguished by their previous careers as scientists, engineers and program managers. They also use these skills to advise the government about future issues of concern and opportunity. They spent the week talking to participants in the conference to gather data, so in the session they offered many insights.  After beers they shared even more interesting ideas and interactions with the audience!

Since the chair of the panel and the writers noted that SciFi correctly predicted most aspects of the internet and sensors we use today, we can perhaps assume today’s wild predictions are not as wild as we think. Perhaps the most interesting idea had to do with the brain systems discussed on day one.  Why not implant something that grows fiber into the nose that will enter the brain with millions of micro -strands that can act as probes. Overall, attendees and presenters at Hilton Head 2014 expressed much optimism that the MEMS industry will continue to grow into more unexpected parts of our lives as we move to a world of trillions of sensors and the internet of things.

The next conference is in Anchorage Alaska in June 2015. Hope to see you all there.

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